Copt in Jerusalem keeps 700-year-old Christian tattoo tradition alive

A Coptic Christian in the Old City of Jerusalem is keeping alive a 700-year-old Christian tradition of having tattoos to preserve memories of one's pilgrimage to the holy city.

(REUTERS / Amir Cohen)A general view of Jerusalem's old city shows the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, October 25, 2015.

Wassim Razzouk, 43, runs his family's tattoo shop which has existed in Jerusalem's Old City since the Crusades. He uses a combination of centuries-old instruments and contemporary methods to create tattoos for Christian pilgrims that depict ancient signs of their faith, the Catholic News Agency detailed.

"We are Copts, we come from Egypt, and in Egypt there is a tradition of tattooing Christians, and my great, great ancestors were some of those tattooing the Christian Copts," Razzouk told CNA.

Back in the sixth or seventh century, Christians in the Holy Land and Egypt were required to show a tattoo of a cross or other proof of their faith so that they would be allowed inside the church. This tradition later spread to the Armenian, Ethiopian, Maronite, and Syriac Christian communities. European pilgrims started adopting the practice in the 1600s, and this custom has carried on until now.

Razzouk's family used to be pilgrims in Jerusalem, but they decided to permanently relocate there in 1750. Now, his tattoo customers include Theophilos, the Coptic Bishop of the Red Sea, and other Christian leaders from all over the world.

"A lot of them decided to come to the Holy Land as pilgrims themselves and decided to stay," Razzouk shared. "For the past 500 years, we've been tattooing pilgrims in the Holy Land, and it's been passed down from father to son."

In an interview with the Middle East Eye earlier this year, an Iraqi-British Catholic who got inked by Razzouk explained how much his tattoo means to him. For 45-year-old Zahar Mafouth, the symbol serves as a daily reminder for him to be a good person.

Father Boulus, a priest at the St. Mark's Monastery, said the tattoos seen on his arms remind him of his Christian beliefs. He also refers pilgrims to Razzouk's tattoo shop and designs tattoos of Aramaic prayers.

Kareem Solomon, a 26-year-old Assyrian Christian from Iraq, said the tattoos are a major part of Christians' identity, especially for those who come from the Middle East. Solomon, who now works as a pharmacist in the U.K., said a lot of people automatically assume that he is Muslim because of his country of origin, his beard, and dark skin color. He said having a tattoo on his wrist is an easier way to show people that he is a Christian.